‘Riveting life’ in law enforcement leads Rovella to CT’s top cop
James Rovella encountered plenty of police officers while working his way through college at the Hartford YMCA.
As he was finishing his master’s degree in public administration at the University of Hartford in 1981 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a city detective dropped off an application for the Hartford Police Department.
“’I’ll be back for it tomorrow,’” Rovella recalled the detective saying.
Nearly four decades later, the Hartford native is now the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official as the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. He oversees six agencies, including the State Police, and a staff of more than 1,300.
The 61-year-old said he found his calling working homicides and cold cases as a Hartford detective.
“It was a riveting life for me,” he said. “Even back then, I was a sensitive detective. I talked to a lot of families who were trying to get resolution for the death of a loved one.”
By 2000, he transferred to the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office to be an inspector investigating crimes statewide and alongside prosecutors in Hartford and Waterbury. He was picked to head the agency’s Cold Case Unit in 2006 for his talent in managing people and investigations, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said.
“I specifically chose him because of his investigative skills and ability to supervise and direct other investigators,” Kane said. “He worked with inspectors and detectives from the state and local police departments. He was able to foster a team. We solved a significant number of cases under his direction.”
As the head of the unit, Rovella realized a problem: Police, corrections and parole officers as well as prosecutors all worked cases in their own silos.
“It all began with the theory of working outside of the silos,” he said. “We couldn’t survive with just inspectors. We had to diversify.”
He pulled in local police, state police, officers from corrections, parole and probation, employees of the state crime lab and state’s attorney’s offices to work collaboratively on cases that had frustrated law enforcement agencies for years.
Within 18 months, the newly reconfigured group arrested four people charged with committing six murders, leading to five convictions. Among those charged was Pedro Miranda, accused of killing three Hartford women in the 1990s.
Rovella also championed the launch of “Cold Case” playing cards now used by all inmates in the state’s corrections facilities. Each card features a different cold case. The thought was that inmates chat while playing cards. Maybe they would recognize a victim — or killer. More than a dozen cases featured on cards have been closed with convictions since 2009.
“He was so invested,” said former Farmington Detective John Beaulieu, who joined the team to work the 1998 murder of a woman found fatally shot on Metropolitan District Commission property. “It didn’t matter who the victim was, he wasn’t just a supervisor, he was actively involved. He had a lot of cases and had intimate knowledge of them all.”
There were 15 notepads lined up on Rovella’s desk, loaded with information on each case the team was working, Beaulieu said.
“He wasn’t the type who would ask you every month what was happening,” said Beaulieu, who is now an inspector with the Litchfield State’s Attorney’s Office. “He knew, because he was involved. He wanted to know what was going on, he didn’t just want to be the boss.”
When Hartford became plagued with shootings and murders involving firearms in 2011, Rovella jumped in as a representative of Kane’s office to craft a plan to reduce gun crimes. The Hartford Shooting Task Force was patterned after the same silo theory he applied to cold case investigations.
By pulling together a similar team, Rovella and the task force helped reduce murders involving guns in Hartford by 42 percent in 2012. By then, Rovella was the interim Hartford police chief and took over the role permanently in September 2012.
As Rovella took over the department of 400-plus officers, he implemented a few other simple theories: More arrests don’t equal less crime and the community needs to trust police.
“When I arrest the right people, crime does go down,” he said. “We were policing a population of color that didn’t trust the police. You can’t make thousands and thousands of arrests and expect crime to go down. You have to make specific arrests of bad guys and you have to examine how you are treating the public.”
His focus on transparency and community outreach worked, but also got him into trouble, community activist Cornell Lewis said.
Rovella joined a group of 100 people who marched a loop around Hartford in August 2014 to protest an officer’s use of a Taser on an 18-year-old, who supporters claimed was defending his sister in a fight.
“He caught big heat the next day,” Lewis said. “By 8 a.m., the police union was blasting him on TV. That, and other things, indicated to me that he was OK.”
He was the type of city leader who knew his relationship with residents would be the key to his department’s success, South End community leader Hyacinth Yennie said.
“Chief Rovella started off building a relationship with the community,” Yennie said. “He realized that to get anything done, he had to partner with the community. He got involved and made sure residents were a part of the decision-making process.”
Rovella had an open-door policy with community leaders and engaged them in outreach programs, said Eliezer Mercado, who is running for Hartford City Council.
Mercado believes Rovella will help the state “look at things differently,” he said.
“I truly believe in him,” Mercado added. “He’s the right person for the job.”
Rovella became the head of the state Environmental Conservation Police after retiring as Hartford’s chief early last year. After Ned Lamont was elected governor in November, his transition team reached out to Rovella to apply for the commissioner’s role. Lamont called Rovella a few days before Christmas to give him a final nudge.
“I’ve been a public servant my entire life,” said Rovella, whose appointment needs to be confirmed by the General Assembly. “I live by to protect and serve, why would I step back from a challenge?”